When I was a little kid, maybe 10 or 11, I had this bizarre idea in my head where I would imagine everything I was doing or saying was being recorded for the world to see. It was like my own reality TV show before there was any such thing. This was not some kind of vain desire for publicity. I recognize now it was how I expressed my awareness of my feelings of self-consciousness. That was when I started to develop that uniquely human characteristic of worrying about how others see me.
In my last post I wrote about Leadership Presence, and I promised a second part about how to develop it, through Awareness, Authenticity, and Action. I will come back and write about Awareness and Action, but this post is just about Authenticity.
Authenticity is a trendy word right now in Leadership Development circles, and rightly so. Authenticity is one of the most important elements of great leadership. It’s a deceptively simple idea so most people assume they know what it means when they hear it. I describe Authenticity by first talking about what it’s not. It is not something you acquire, or put on, or try to do. It is not a skill, or a behavior, though there are plenty of skills and behaviors that might reflect your authenticity, or even help you find it.
Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us, most of the time, are putting on a performance. If we are working in corporate America, we’re probably paying attention to how we’re perceived by others, especially those above us in the hierarchy, those in a position to judge us. We don’t want to look dumb, or naive, or arrogant, or too jolly, too morose, too excited, too laid back, and on and on. We wear a mask to look the part of how we’re expected to look. Ask yourself if you are the same person at home, or with your friends as you are at work, in the staff meeting, or in the boardroom. Ask yourself if you ever adjust what you want to say or do based on how you believe others will react. As humans we have very well-developed “armor” that we wear in order to protect ourselves and succeed in potentially threatening environments. Corporate America definitely qualifies.
Your Authentic Self is who you are when you completely drop the mask… when you take off the suit of armor. To be absolutely authentic is to have absolutely no restraint on saying what you believe and doing what you think is right. This requires a lot of self-honesty, because many of us fool ourselves into believing we are authentic simply when we say or do difficult or controversial things. The real test is whether it reflects our deepest, most inner being with no alteration for what others expect. This is actually a pretty rare thing, not only in corporate America but in life in general. And like any rare thing, it has enormous value. It’s so rare and precious that when we see it in others, we are affected. This is what makes it so critical to Leadership. People follow you because of who you are, not because of what you do, and when you let your authentic self be seen (i.e., Have Presence), people respond.
The first step toward being an Authentic leader is Awareness. When you cultivate a level of self-awareness to liberate your authentic self, only then can you begin to take powerful leadership Action.